August 28, 2008

Behind the doors of the Free Software Foundation

Author: Bruce Byfield

The purpose of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is probably obvious from its name -- but what does promoting free software mean in terms of everyday activity? Examining the roles of the organization shows how complex the FSF's advocacy role has become. It also reveals the range of services available to the free software community, and helps to explain how such a small group has had such a major influence on computer technology.

As a 501(c)3 charity in the United States, the FSF is run by a board of directors. The current board includes FSF founder and president Richard M. Stallman and long-term member Henry Poole, but, in the last few years, new faces have appeared on the board.

According to director Benjamin Mako Hill, "The board's most important responsibility is to protect software freedom and to decide the FSF's goals and tactics. That means that they are ultimately responsible for the GNU General Public License, the LGPL, AGPL, and GNU Free Documentation License, for FSF-copyright-assigned software and manuals, and for much of the infrastructure of running the GNU Project. As a result, board members must first and foremost be committed to the cause of software freedom."

The board members meet several times a year to decide the FSF's activities and budgets. "New campaigns, new staff, and new directions for the organization are ultimately discussed and approved by the board," Hill says. Between meetings, board members may be consulted or polled as issues arise.

The executive

Under the directors falls the executive branch, which consists of the president, executive director, and manager of operations. The division of responsibility between the president and executive director is not firm -- in fact, Peter Brown, the current executive director, had to think for a moment before he could articulate it.

These days, Stallman spends much of his time traveling to promote free software. However, contrary to what outsiders might expect, as president, he remains closely involved with FSF policy, asking frequently for status reports and making policy decisions that do not require other members of the board.

Moreover, Brown says, "Richard can be very hands-on in relation to a specific target that he needs to be speaking about."

As executive director, Brown's role is technically to implement policy rather than set it -- that is, to determine tactics rather than strategy. However, from Brown's description, there seems to be more give and take between the president and the executive director than this division might imply. For instance, while Stallman might call upon Brown to carry out an action, Brown says that sometimes he will "say why it's not a good idea" instead.

Manager of operations is a position that was calved from the executive director's in recent years as the FSF's activities have increased. As with the president and the executive director, the dividing line between the executive director and the manager of operations is not completely clear, but, in general, while the executive director implements strategy, the manager of operations oversees the work of the staff. The current manager of operations is John Sullivan.

The executive office also comprises two support staff members: Stallman's personal assistant and an operational assistant. As described by Brown, these roles are not simply clerical or administrative: Stallman's assistant also does marketing for the FSF in general, while the operational assistant runs the GNU store and press. Further, the individuals currently in these positions are now in the process of taking on more responsibility, which seems an indication that their roles are not simply supportive.

Other roles

Perhaps the best-known of the remaining roles in the FSF is the compliance engineer, a position currently held by Brett Smith. Working with a small team of knowledgeable volunteers, the compliance engineer answers questions about free licenses and responds to reports about possible license violations. Where a violation has actually occurred, the compliance engineer tries to take a non-adversarial role, offering to help the violating company or project to come into appliance, rather threatening legal action. The compliance engineer also works closely with the Software Freedom Law Center and organizations such as GPL-violations exchanging information and, when necessary, coordinating strategies against violators.

As the FSF becomes increasingly focused on social activism, another role that has become increasingly important is campaign manager. The foundation currently has two: Joshua Gay and Matt Lee. The campaign managers are charged with organizing efforts such as the anti-DRM Defective By Design and the anti-Windows BadVista campaigns. Such campaigns are intended mainly to respond to threats to free software, but also have the benefit of encouraging people concerned with a certain issue to explore free software as an option to what they find objectionable.

Another role is management of copyright assignments to the GNU Project, which remains closely connected to the FSF. While maintainers of GNU projects are not required to reassign copyright to GNU, many do so in order to guard against the consequences of key developers either dying or withdrawing from the project. Once a project has decided to reassign copyright, each contributor must sign a separate contract. According to Brown, the FSF receives "thousands" of contracts each year, and "we've just had our busiest year for copyright assignment."

A role that is just being created is membership coordinator. It is scheduled to be filled by Deb Nicholson, the former maintainer of the Free Software Directory. Speaking of the need for this new role, Brown says, "We have a growing membership, and we have a view of what we want the membership to be. Our membership program provides the bulk of our funding, but we also want a deeper engagement with out members, in the sense that we want them to be activists, and we want to be able to provide them with the resources necessary for them to be more effective in this role." The plan is for the membership coordinator to attend major free software and open source events to meet local supporters, especially those who might not attend the FSF's annual meeting in Boston. Already, the FSF has held such events in the vicinity of OSCon and Linuxworld.

"And there's a very good reason for that," Brown says: "not just out reach out to our members and tell them what we're doing, but because we get a lot of good ideas from them." For example, Brown says that both the Defective by Design and End Software Patents campaigns were a direct results of membership suggestions.

The rest of the FSF staff is supported by a trio of system administrators -- Danny Clark, Joshua Ginsberg, and Ward Vandewege. All three are active in free software projects, especially when the FSF needs some specific functionality implemented. Vandewege in particular is a major contributor to coreboot (formerly LinuxBIOS), whose goal is implement a free BIOS. The system administrators have been converting the FSF infrastructure to coreboot for the last couple of years, and are now only a few workstations away from completing the task. When the task is complete, the FSF itself might very well be the largest user of free BIOSes in the world.


Positions in the FSF are fluid. Like any small company, the FSF does not have a rigid structure, and people regularly get involved in activities beyond their immediate job descriptions. For example, both Peter Brown and John Sullivan tend to be active in various campaigns. Similarly, board members often pursue their own interests within the foundation. Benjamin Mako Hill, for instance, says, "I tend to have close relationships with the campaigns team, the licensing expert, and the new membership coordinator, and have at least weekly conversations with those staff members on particular issues and projects."

In addition, while the board and executive branch of the FSF seems relatively stable, other positions are constantly changing. Right now, Jeanne Resata, Stallman's personal assistant, is expanding her role to include promotional work for both Stallman's speeches and the FSF in general, as well as shepherding a second edition of his book Free Software, Free Society through publication and translation, while Samuel Choi has been hired as copyright administrator while this article was being written.

Similarly, the foundation is currently looking for a replacement for its operation assistant, since Kelly Hopkins, who held the position until recently, is moving on to handle press relations and organization's online store, as well as the jobs, software, and hardware directories.

In addition, the FSF is planning to hire a new manager for its End Software Patents campaign. In the near future, the FSF may also hire someone to work on its high-priority projects, trying to encourage the community to become more focused in filling in the gaps in free software.

"We have to work carefully, with support from the community and from a very small financial base," Brown says. "We also have to make sure that we remain coherent with what we're doing. We've got some chief things we'd like to accomplish in the next couple of years, but we're taking small steps toward them."


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